Back in March I was due to fly to Japan with a film crew. We knew there had been earthquakes but the trip still seemed feasible. Mid-journey the first pictures of the tsunami began to appear on our phones and iPads. The images were so monstrous they were hard to credit. Our flight was aborted.
The suffering of the Japanese is immense – but it is a kind I have seen documented before. Around 1620BC the Greek island of Thera (now known as Santorini) blew sky high. Thera is in fact one giant volcano and its Bronze Age eruption was the greatest geophysical event in the human experience.
Forensic investigation of the seabed over the past five years tells us the eruption was 400 times the scale of the recent Icelandic explosion, detonating with a force 40,000 times that of the Hiroshima atomic bomb.
The acidic ash cloud that followed restricted tree-growth as far afield as Ireland. Extruded volcanic material from the eruption – 150 billion tonnes of the stuff – is still turning up in archaeological digs from Eastern Turkey to Jordan. The explosion also set in train scores of tsunami waves, 27 feet high, travelling at 200 miles per hour, that pounded the Cyclades, Crete, the Levant and the European mainland. Over a period of between one to three days the entire population of Thera was wiped out, along with at least 75 per cent of the region’s coastal population.
And what a population. The inhabitants of Thera were, quite simply, awesome. We know this because the volcano preserved as it destroyed, with a fall of ash and pumice – in places it was 30 metres thick – smothering streets, houses, towns. The city of Akrotiri, first excavated in the 1960s and now yielding new treasures, is an unwitting time capsule that also reveals technological marvels including homes built using anti-earthquake engineering. Walls are whitewashed, and rooms decorated with paintings whose nonchalant naturalism is breathtaking. The Therans were not short of cash either – their women sport heavy, gold hoop earrings and necklaces made of cornelian, men are rowed in ships covered with gauzy sun-shades and garlanded with flowers.
The island had not much fertile land, not much water – but it was strategically situated between Asia, Africa and Europe, and the Therans made ”beyond the horizon’’ their business. One wall painting, the Marine Frieze, shows a newly invented kind of sailing ship breaking into uncharted waters. Around the edge are lions, date palms, and African antelope. This was a culture that interacted with the outside world. Thera would have been a legend in its own lifetime.